Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Pt. I)

Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Pt. I) November 26, 2008

It’s that time of the year again, and here at FPR we (or mostly ‘I’) figured that we’d toss out a few thoughts about applying to graduate school programs in religious studies. By “religious studies” we’re casting a fairly wide net not referring to simply Religious Studies departments, but all programs where the applicant will study “religion” in some form or another (although we’re not claiming broad knowledge of the application process for all these disciplines). Furthermore, much of our discussion will be rather anecdotal. While we may even know a few statistics about the schools we attend(ed) or have applied to, even those may not reflect current trends nor be arrived at by any strict statistical calculation (‘strict’ here meaning it’s been a long time since we’ve taken a math course or studied for the GRE).

With that caveat I’d like to explore two issues in this post: Deciding whether or not to attend graduate school, and deciding which graduate programs to apply to. 

Should I even apply? 

Part of the answer to this question depends on what you intend to do for a living. If you would like to go into academia at the professorial level (although at this stage you may not know exactly what this entails) you will need a PhD. With a master’s degree you can often “adjunct” at a university or college, meaning you can teach a class or two a semester as an unofficial part of the faculty, but you probably won’t be able to rely on this as a primary source of income. Given the growing number of PhDs even most community colleges can fill their full time faculty before going with someone with an MA.

That said, many people find a master’s program helpful for several reasons. First of all it gives you a chance to see how much you’d like the academic life–you are basically taking the same classes as PhD students without the long term commitment of the PhD process. Secondly, people with a master’s degree are often more competitive for PhD programs. Relatively few people will come straight into a PhD program in Religion having not graduated from a top tier undergraduate program (e.g., BYU). Thirdly, it can be leveraged into other career options (emphasis on the ‘can’).

Many people do a master’s program, discover that a PhD is not for them, but have an invigorating experience studying religion in a new setting and come away with a transformed outlook on the world and their own religious life (more later on the nature of this ‘transformation’). I imagine those such as Julie Smith could comment on this. The Kevin Barneys and Blake Ostlers demonstrate that participation in intellectually rigorous religious debate does not require a graduate degree in religious studies. In developing fields (such as Mormon studies) some of the most creative work is done by people who are not ‘academics’ (although one could argue that they have to work even harder to be taken seriously by academics). There are growing communities of LDSs at most of the big divinity schools/religious studies programs. A good idea would be to communicate with some of them to see what their experience is (or was) like.

To state it directly, there are a number of other, more practical reasons you may not want to apply. The process is long and the attrition rate is high. Even if you get admitted to a master’s program, the odds are still against you getting into most PhD programs. Most programs are not well funded, and if you have children the financial problems multiply. Even people admitted into PhD programs sometimes do not finish. A dissertation is usually 300 pages long and can stretch out for years. Those who are married may find their spouse getting a job offer in a different part of the country, and face the decision of relocating. And even if you finish the PhD, the job market may not be good with upwards of a hundred other PhDs applying for the same job. Furthermore, after being hired you still have to worry about the tenure process. All this for a $65K/yr job.

Without trying to sound negative, however, there are few other occupations that allow you to pursue your intellectual interests to the degree that academia does. You meet some of the most brilliant people, engage with young inquiring minds, and have time to research those questions that keep you up at night. (If you don’t have questions that keep you up at night academia is probably not for you.)

Where should I apply to?

In thinking about which graduate programs to apply to there are a number of factors to take into consideration. I’ll discuss three of those factors here:

1) Future ambitions. Some schools are perceived as being “better” than others. Admittance to a top tier institution does not guarantee that you’ll get hired at a top tier institution. On the other hand it is extremely rare to get hired at an institution in a higher tier than the one you graduate from. Part of this, then, depends on the kind of place you would like to end up in. Many people decide that the Harvard and Yale’s are not the kind of place they would like to teach at and decide to head for other, more fitting places. One problem with not graduating from a top tier institution, however, is competing against those who have. Intellectual merit perhaps being the same, those from the top tier institutions usually have a larger social network to draw from in getting recommendations. In other words, their profs usually know a prof there, and can make a good verbal recommendation. That said, however, some of the larger, top tier programs are less aggressive in job placement than the smaller programs which are working harder to make a name for themselves. One of the smaller programs I applied to boasted that they had a near perfect placement ratio (the institution I’m currently at certainly doesn’t).

2) Faculty. There should be at least one, if not two, faculty members you’d like to work with. One thing to pay attention to is whether there are other schools in the area that also have faculty in your field that you can take classes from, as most schools allow cross-registration. This may be a problem for some people going into Mormon studies. As one who is not directly involved in the field I cannot offer specific advice; however I imagine that there are institutions with strong programs in a historical or anthropological approach to American religious traditions. And part of the new ground that needs to be broken (or more broken) is well-trained scholars who have a interests that go beyond Mormondom to participate in larger discourses related to the history of religions, anthropology of religions, sociology of religions (such as Armand Mauss), etc.

3) Community. An important thing is to feel comfortable where ever you end up (although for the first few weeks or months everyone feels intellectually inferior). For LDSs part of the issue in feeling comfortable is feeling accepted as a LDS. Leaving the question of “will graduate school harm my testimony” for another post, what I’d like to mention here is that cultures from school to school vary. As mentioned above there have been LDS students at most of the large religious studies programs. Discussing this with one of them is an invaluable resource.

Anyone who would like to, feel free to chime in with either your experience or questions that you have. Future posts in this series may include: will graduate school in religious studies harm my testimony?, the admittance process, how to write a statement of purpose, what to do about letters of recommendation and the GRE, identifying specific programs in Biblical studies, and more. We’re open to other ideas for future posts.


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